'Having low numbers of females in STEM is a repetitive cycle that needs to be dealt with'

  • Photo: Joanne Ferguson, Director of Collaboration Systems Business Operations at CME

    Joanne Ferguson, Director of Collaboration Systems Business Operations at CME Group tells Kathryn McKenna, Sync NI about her passion for inspiring more young women to pursue a career in STEM and why it is “crucial to break the cycle and “be the change we want to see in the world.” 

    As a female leader in the industry, can you talk us through when you first realised you wished to pursue a career in the technology sector and your career path to date? 

    I was a nerd at school. I went to Victoria College Belfast, an all-girls' school, and my A Levels were Maths, Further Maths, Physics and Chemistry.I enjoyed the clarity of producing a resolution to a problem, balancing an equation or providing a physical interface to complete a task. I loved fixing things and understanding how they worked.  

    It was therefore a natural choice for me to study Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Queen’s University Belfast, one of less than 10 females in a class of over 100.After graduation, my first role was as a telecoms engineer. 

    From there, I moved into Computer Telephony Integration, specialising in telephony billing, telephony product management, and compliance. 

    I joined Citibank, Belfast in June 2005 as one of the first 17 staff members, where I worked for seven years in Technology Infrastructure programme management. 

    I moved to CME Group in 2012, as one of the first employees there, too.CME Group is the world’s leading derivatives marketplace, providing the widest range of global benchmark products across all major asset classes. Our exchanges offer trading in interest rates, equity indexes, foreign exchange, energy, agricultural products and metals.  

    The Belfast office was established 12 years ago, and we now have around 370 members of staff, with 80 per cent in technology. Other teams include accounting and finance, legal, online marketing, clearing, anti-money-laundering and HR. 

    You are a STEM Ambassador and SistersIN mentor alongside the vital work you do as Early Career Lead for the CME Group. You must be extremely passionate about increasing the representation of women in STEM. How important is it to reach out to female students at a young age to help educate them and inform them about the career paths available in STEM? 

    I am a single mum to a 16-year-old daughter, and a 14-year-old son. Ensuring they are both fully informed of the career opportunities available is an important priority to me and a driver for my passion to encourage women in STEM. 

    Having low numbers of females in STEM is a repetitive cycle that needs to be dealt with. In organisations where the male/female ratio in technology roles is 50/50, that normalises the role models and there is no perception that it is ‘unusual’ to take on a STEM role because of your perceived gender. This permits the ratio to be maintained. 

    In CME Group in Belfast, we are fortunate to have a senior management team that is (almost) evenly split with five females and four males, across all departments. 

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    Here in Northern Ireland, that ratio is much lower, around 22 per cent, so inspiring more young women in STEM careers is crucial to break the cycle. One way to do this is to encourage young people to take interest in the technology they interact with every day. 

    A large proportion of young people who are attracted into the technology industry are inspired because they enjoy video games. It can be a gateway, encouraging them to learn more, find out how the technology works, and figure out how to do it better. 

    We should be showing young people how the applications they use everyday work. This inspires their creativity to create their own app and understand the commonality across many platforms of a secure logon, connectivity, a user interface to a database, and manipulation of that data to be presented as an output in a desired format. 

    The workSistersIN does in terms of mentoring young pupils is inspiring. With young girls previously stating a lack of female role models in the technology sector as one reason why they may not be encouraged to pursue it as a career, how important is it for young girls to see females in leadership positions in tech? 

    SistersIN is a fantastic initiative to support females in Year 13 in preparing, developing and defining the skills required for employment, however it really needs to start much earlier. 

    The role modelling needs to show young girls that “having it all” is actually possible. We need to have more positive role models for young girls to show them the fun and varied opportunities that are available in STEM.Organisations need to visit schools to demonstrate the entrepreneurship and leadership of successful women in Northern Ireland. 

    Often, STEM roles are perceived as individual contributor ones, where the task involves sitting alone at a computer or in a lab. That characterisation isn’taccurate, and it can dissuade those who want more of a collaborative or team role. 

    In reality, there are very few jobs where sole contribution is actually the case. The majority of roles are team based, and this is something that we need to communicate through project work in schools and universities. 

    At CME Group in Belfast, we have a group of successful women, from intern to director level, who have presented in girls’ schools, demonstrating their path to success, telling their story and how they’d advise their 16-year-old self. In education, all of the focus is on the subject knowledge of the individual and proving their level of memory and understanding of that subject. This is key for a foundational knowledge. 

    “However, in industry, skills of communication, problem solving, negotiation, mediation, organisation, leadership, creativity, and presentations are all vital to deliver a completed project.University group projects can be unrealistic because often they are based on a group of students from the same class, with the same experience. In real life, this is rarely the case.  

    With CME Group’s university partnerships, I am hoping to influence change to permit cross faculty project teams, to deliver genuine solutions to university needs. Also, the project team could be made up of students from different years, so that leadership skills can be established from early in their career. 

    CME Group runs fantastic diversity and inclusion initiatives which run both locally and at a global level. Can you tell us a bit about why they are so vitally important and some first-hand accounts of the type of talent and successful candidates these initiatives produce? 

    CME Group has 11 different D&I Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). Our Employee Resource Groups consist of employees who come together around a common mission and reflect a particular dimension of diversity (such as gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, generation and professional level, life situation, etc.) or special interest.  

    Participation is encouraged and open to all employees. Employee Resource Groups can be mutually beneficial for CME Group, employees and the community. 

    They are:  

    • Black Organisation for Leadership and Development - BOLD 

    • Connecting Asia Network - CAN 

    • Differently Abled Workforce Network - DAWN 

    • Fulfilment, Lifestyle, Openness and Wellness - FLOW 

    • Hispanics Organising for Leadership and Achievement - HOLA 

    • Promoting, Rights, Inclusion, Diversity and Equality Employee - PRIDE 

    • Sustain and Enhance our Environmental Direction - SEED 

    • Service Members and Veterans - SERVE 

    • Women's Initiative Network - WIN 

    • Women In Technology - WIT 

    • Careers - LAUNCH 

    The groups work together on mentoring, presentations, activities, newsletters, events, book clubs, often collaborating across groups with a common purpose. 

    Personally, I am involved with seven of these groups. I am also on associate boards and act as a global mentor.It is a fantastic way to become involved with a global network of like-minded individuals, and to be supported to bring your authentic self to work and celebrate the unique qualities that make you who you are. 

    CME Group is home to outstanding award-winning early careers programmes, from the Higher Level Apprenticeship scheme, Intern and Graduate level. Can you tell us a bit more about them? 

    Our first point of entry into CME Group’s early career program is straight from school or college, via our Apprenticeship Program. 

    Apprenticeships are open to students in Year 14, studying the relevant subjects, with a passion for their chosen field. 

    In 2023, our Technology Degree Apprenticeship was recognised with the Large Employer of the Year Award. It was fantastic to receive recognition for the programme which we have created in partnership with our own apprentices. 

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    Our apprentices are on six-month placements around all our technology teams, permitting them to have an insight into the diverse areas of the division that work together to provide our market leading technology solutions. 

    I am the Industry Chair, in partnership with Professor Jonathan Wallace from Ulster University’s School of Computing, for their Employer Advisory Board. I also sit on the Professional Advisory Board for EEECS at Queen’s University Belfast. 

    I hold a position on the Board of Software NI, an industry group working with government and education to increase the awareness, opportunities and funding for the software industry in Northern Ireland. 

    These roles permit me to help influence the curriculum and skills gap requirements for the technology industry in Northern Ireland, ensuring we retain the global respect we have earned for the high calibre of talent that our education system produces. 

    At CME Group, we have been hosting interns on their placement year for 12 years. The intern positions are taken up early in second year for third year placement, so it’s those organised candidates who attend the October recruitment fairs or apply early who are rewarded with the placement with us. 

    These interns grow in confidence during the year, as they take on independent work and see their own efforts realised into applications and platforms used globally. We use the feedback from these interns, and industry peers, to further improve and shape the local university courses. 

    This current year, our split of male/female interns is almost 50/50, which is fantastic to see. 

    Both the Apprentice and Intern Programmes are superb talent pipelines for our Graduate Programme.” 

    The apprenticeship offered by CME Group, sees students study a Computing Systems BSc degree, part time, as well as working for CME Group up to four days a week. Having the course paid for and the ability to earn whilst learning must help to appeal to a more diverse applicant from different backgrounds. Can you tell us more about this and how interested applicants can help their application stand out? 

    Apprenticeships are an amazing way to support a student through university. With no need for a part time job, apprentices learn from industry experts, gaining experience in a reputable company, all before graduation. 

    In order to be shortlisted for an interview, the CV is the first opportunity to impress.  

    That said, it’s certainly not all about academic results. Students need to demonstrate their genuine interest in computing through the activities they do outside school or college. This could be running the school computing club, writing gaming mods or hacks, upgrading their PC, or even creating their own apps or websites. 

    They should also be able to five examples of collaboration, problem solving, organisational skills, independence, leadership etc. from their personal life through volunteering, part time jobs, clubs, competitions, groups or organisations. 

    It is amazing to see the work CME Group does with integrated schools, with the Integrated Education Fund recently posting on social media about the generous donation of “much needed” equipment recently which they say is “such a thoughtful and generous act that will benefit many schools and pupils.” It is fantastic to hear of such important work reaching out to the wider community. Would you tell us a bit more about this and other work CME Group does in the wider community? 

    I believe that today, use of technology should be as important as numeracy and literacy, to enable equality of opportunity for personal and career development.  

    This is one of the reasons that CME Group donates our end of life equipment to the Integrated Education Fund, for distribution to schools. 

    "In the technology industry, our computers become end-of-life within a few years, as we move to faster and more powerful platforms to deal with the amount of data we handle.  

    We’ve also donated other needed items like cables and recycling bins.CME Group has a number of STEM ambassadors, who volunteer at school initiatives from primary school upwards, to encourage an understanding of the fun opportunities available within STEM. 

    A few years ago, the CME Group Foundation and some of our local staff, in partnership with QUB EEECS, supported 150+ teachers to be trained in coding to help deliver the Digital Technology GCSE. This was a fantastic initiative, however there are still not enough skilled IT teachers available. 

    Outside of education, CME Group has a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) team who organise events with local charities such as Air Ambulance and Action Mental Health. For example, on Earth Day, our team joined with the Belfast Linen Quarter to pick up litter in Belfast City Centre. 

    Every CME Group employee has a paid volunteer day, which they can use to support the charity of their choice, and the company supports charities important to its employees through donation matching. 

    You are a clear example of a female in the industry achieving fantastic results and a powerful role model for young girls considering a career in STEM. What words of advice would you have for a young girl or student with a passion for STEM subjects who may be considering a career in the field,as well as those from a more diverse background? 

    The more obvious question is why not? I don’t consider my gender in my daily role until it becomes obvious that my opinions are from a different perspective which may not have been considered, or when I’m the only one in a bright colour in a room of black suits! 

    I would fully encourage any young person to go into a role in technology.You can join a global company, gain a really good salary, and will continually develop your skills for a lifetime. Technology underpins all other industries, so the demand will only increase, as will the opportunities."

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